Written for The Alternative, 24 Nov 2015
In a documentary entitled Waste= Food, William McDonough, an architect and Michael Braungart, a chemist, introduce the concept of Cradle to Cradle (C2C) in design. This concept addresses the growing problem of waste in human society in economic terms. McDonough puts it very simply. He says ‘Waste is basically stupid. We are creating something that has no value or creates a cost. It is a bad business proposition.’
The Cradle to Cradle concept unites chemistry in the making of materials, design in the design of products and systems, architecture and finally looks at food and agriculture. It crosses disciplines and demands that one plans and perceives things in totality and in terms of the connections between various disciplines. It treats waste as food – either for biological cycles in the case of natural materials or for technical cycles when waste becomes a resource for the next manufacturing cycle.
CEOs of large companies who have implemented the concept into their facilities and products find that it changes the way they look at life altogether, apart from saving them a significant amount of money.
Some of the design principles seem so simple in their approach but have long term impacts on the disposal of the materials and processes designed. For example : Making things in a way that they can be easily dismantled into separate components. This ensures that when the product is no longer in use, it can be broken down with minimal effort and can be put back into the manufacturing cycle. Nike has designed a shoe that can be just snapped together and snapped out when it is ready for recycling.
Other principles involve looking for natural materials to replace chemicals and enhancing the impermanent properties of the natural materials to make them an advantage in design. Braungart speaks of icecream packaging that melts into a fluid itself when peeled off the icecream and has seeds embedded in it so it can sprout new plants when it melts into the soil.
Braungart says that aiming only for sustainability is not enough – that’s just maintainence. Every man made object and process should not only have a zero negative impact on the environment but actually contribute to the well being of Nature and other life species.
This philosophy does not put human needs and convenience at the center of the design framework but takes responsibility for the entire environment they create. China is now turning to the duo to help them design rural environments that will reverse the migrations to urban areas. They have started by designing affordable housing out of waste materials.
How can this philosophy of design help us in the Indian cultural context?
Here, we have some populations still living in a pre industrial era with no access to technology and then alongside we have large metros that are all competing to to enter the smart ( read ‘tech savvy’) cities categories. The simultaneous and parallel coexistence of both these extremes offers opportunities to easily incorporate cradle to cradle thinking in some contexts but may also pose a challenge to the ‘development’ model that the government is pushing in other contexts.
Industrial design in India could definitely benefit from this design approach and work towards minimising the massive scale of industrial waste we face. If the Polluter pays principle is enforced more stringently by the government, then industries will be pushed into exploring the C2C approach.
Economically, the financial success of the C2C models can be an incentive for governments to rethink their understanding of development. Especially since income generation and ‘jobs for all’ is the fundamental justification for most developmental activity.
McDonoughs focus is on expanding the scope of our design mandate by including the welfare of ‘all children of all species for all time.’ In a country as culturally diverse as ours, the ability to be inclusive and tolerant is stronger and this is what has allowed such diversity to flourish. A design mandate that also takes responsibility for other forms of life, would be very easily integrated into cultures which already reveres other life forms.
And finally, the belief that this life is not all there is – that Nature is cyclical and so is time, will welcome a design approach that thinks in terms of cycles rather than linearity. If the waste you create is going to come back and haunt your children’s children, you do need to think about it carefully !
These articles form a series in the Green Idea campaign called The Beauty of Recycling conducted by eCoexist and Studio Alternatives and sponsored by the Government of Maharashtra, Environment Department. They aim to raise awareness about the aesthetic and financial potential of recycling. To read more visit www.beautyofrecycling.in